So now, during what would have been a Wimbledon week, is a good time to remember a great American tennis champion: Arthur Ashe. Ashe is the only black man to win a singles championship at Wimbledon. Three black women — Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Althea Gibson — have won the women’s singles championship.
Ashe also was the only black man to win the singles championships at two other major tennis tournaments — the United States Open in 1968 and the Australian Open in 1970.
Ashe won these tournaments when he was one of few black professional tennis players. When Ashe was growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he could not play in some junior tournaments, because blacks were not allowed to play on certain courts or at certain clubs.
Ashe’s win at Wimbledon in 1975 was one for the ages. His opponent in the men’s final, Jimmy Connors, was the Number 1 player in the world. Connors had won three major titles — the United States and Australian opens as well as Wimbledon — in 1974. The hard-hitting Connors had stormed through his six earlier matches. Most tennis experts did not expect Ashe to win.
But Ashe outsmarted Connors. Instead of trying to match Connors’s power, Ashe mixed up his shots, moving Connors around the court with spin shots and soft volleys. Frustrated and confused, Connors fell behind quickly. Ashe won in four sets.
At a time when today’s athletes are speaking out on the important issues of the day, such as police violence against African Americans, it is also important to recall that Ashe was among the first professional athletes to be involved with political and social causes.
In the 1980s after he had retired from competitive tennis, Ashe co-founded Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. Ashe and the organization tried to bring attention to conditions in South Africa, where blacks were forced to live separately from whites under a system called apartheid.
An excellent student — Ashe was first in his high school class and a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles — he wrote a three-volume book on the black athlete in American society called “A Hard Road to Glory.”
In addition, Ashe was active in the American Heart Association as well as the fight against AIDS, a deadly disease of the body’s immune system. Ashe died of AIDS at age 49.
Scholar, social activist, tennis great. Arthur Ashe was a true American champion.